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Keegan and Dalglish: putting human faces on the transformation of football

Keegan typified the birth of the new football; Dalglish the demise of the old, writes Richard T Kelly.

Intertwining biographies is difficult, the literary equivalent of a one-two when a perky Italian defender is hunting for the ball. The most important decision is the choice of subjects and Richard T Kelly has selected wisely.

As players, Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish met on the field; later, they were in opposing dugouts. Dalglish replaced Keegan at Liverpool in 1977 and, 20 years later, he replaced him as manager of Newcastle United. Dalglish played for and twice-managed Liverpool. Keegan played for and twice-managed Newcastle.

These are clubs with fans so devoted that they can turn men with bad haircuts and grass stains on their knees into messiahs. Keegan and Dalglish are two such men. On Keegan’s signing for Newcastle in 1982, Kelly writes, “A great swathe of the support undeniably felt the thrill of the millionaire star… [who had] chosen to don the shirt and come among them.” Equally, there was something about Dalglish and “the degree to which he summoned and exemplified the passion associated with Liverpool”.

Kelly, a novelist and a contributing editor at Esquire, is eager to put human faces on the social and economic transformation of football. David Goldblatt’s The Game of Our Lives remains at the fore when it comes to analysing these changes, but there is something to be said for tracing them through the lives of two men who were there when urine cascaded down the terraces and when silence cascaded down their all-seater replacements. But while Keegan and Dalglish were important figures during a period when football changed considerably, they rode different waves on to the white-sand beaches of the Premier League era.

Language is one area where the game has resisted change. Goals are banged in and defenders are turned inside out; players put in shifts to avoid a bust-up with the gaffer. This often leads to workmanlike prose and Kelly is liveliest away from the pitch. “Rupert Murdoch,” we are told, “got into the business of satellite TV in 1989, in a somewhat jerry-built, piratical manner that had a ropy look to it amid the traditional high-toned scene of British broadcasting.” He is less successful at avoiding the common trap of writing long stretches that amount to season retrospectives full of drubbings, hat-tricks and trophies won or lost. One of the consequences, exacerbated by the absence of fresh interview material, is that the private lives of Dalglish and Keegan seem ghostly.

During his playing career, Keegan pursued deals that were unglamorous by modern standards. In 1978, he earned half his income by promoting slippers, crisps, ice lollies and the Match of the Day Electronic Soccer Action Game. He was willing to travel around the country to perform the ceremonial duties at the opening of supermarkets and, after retiring to Spain, he explored the idea of patenting a laser-tag version of football called Soccer Circus.

Keegan described himself as “an entrepreneurial sort of person” and, despite the perm, he was a hustler in the hip-hop sense of the word. He believed that his sources of remuneration should expand in recognition of his improbable rise from nowhere to stardom. Only he didn’t come from nowhere; his family came from the mines and that was worse. He could have easily kept his head above water by living on his wages yet there was something symbolic about keeping himself above ground with as much emphasis as he could muster.

Dalglish was doleful compared with Keegan, but he possessed a determination sufficient to out-grunt Jock Stein when he wanted to leave Celtic – a notable case of Eeyore besting iron ore. While it’s hard to credit Graeme Souness’s claim that Dalglish would be “rocking and rolling” after one glass of champagne, there are people willing to testify that Dalglish is a funny person. Along with Souness and Alan Hansen, he used rough humour as a weapon to maintain a hierarchy in the Liverpool dressing room. Great success was the result. As managers, Keegan and Dalglish were little interested in tactical systems, but the aura they possessed from their playing days was sometimes enough to inspire their teams. It helped if the teams were assembled at great expense.

Keegan typified the birth of the new football; Dalglish the demise of the old. In his conclusion, Kelly argues that the contribution of neither deserves to be lamented. Keegan demonstrated what might be achieved by using football as the foundation for a business empire when there was barely a hair on David Beckham’s head. Yet his acquisitiveness, derived from working-class impulses still common in football, can’t help but seem frivolous in the light of Hillsborough. After the disaster, it was Dalglish – his reserve making him almost statuesque – who decided that the players should be among the fans to “bear witness”. This sense of propriety made him ask more of himself: all he had to offer was his presence, but he offered it generously. The dignity with which he carried out his duties contributed to the feeling that football would never again be the same.

Alasdair McKillop is the co-editor of “Born Under a Union Flag: Rangers, Britain and Scottish Independence” (Luath Press)

Keegan and Dalglish
Richard T Kelly
Simon & Schuster, 400pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move

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The Back Half #19: Sting & Shaggy, Annihilation and the bumbag

The NS culture podcast with Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman.

Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss the unlikely musical collaboration of Sting and Shaggy on the album 44/876 (out on 20 April), review the new Alex Garland film Annihilation (with special guest Helen Lewis), and celebrate the noniversary of the bumbag (or fanny pack, if you're American).

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Get in touch with questions or noniversary suggestions on Twitter via @tom_gatti or @ns_podcasts.

Further reading:

Kate's interview in New York with Sting and Shaggy.

Helen's review of Annihilation.

Our theme music is "God Speed" by Pistol Jazz, licensed under Creative Commons.